Sam Harris believes he has identified a fatal flaw in contemporary thinking about morals and human values. For Harris, we are suffering from an epidemic of moral relativism, wherein most people, including secular academics, feel as though science and values are destined to belong to separate realms of thinking; science in the objective, morality stuck in the subjective. This notion of questions of morality not having right or wrong answers is seen as dangerous, Harris argues there are real answers to life’s most important questions, and these answers can promote human lourishing much more than our accepted pattern of ignorance.
The general claim made is that there are empirical facts to be known about the connection between values and human well-being, and in this way we can use science to answer questions about morality. To begin to make this connection, Harris introduces a primary premise: morals are always reducible to consciousness or changes in consciousness. He calls values a “certain kind of fact, they are facts about the wellbeing of conscious creatures”(Harris, “Science can answer”).
Harris gives the example of comparing our feelings of sympathy for animals versus our lack there of or inanimate objects, consciousness is the base of morality and values. We understand that conscious creatures have available to them a potential range of happiness and suffering. If we can accept this, then we have to accept that there are facts to be known about the experiences of these creatures. He argues, that even if your values stem from religion, you are still concerned with consciousness and its changes, whether these changes occur in this life or the next.
Harris believes there is no getting around this factual claim, he asserts there are truths to be known about uman happiness and morality is directly related to these truths. With values reducing to facts about human wellbeing, we are able to scientifically explore this connection. This is how Harris introduces the “Moral Landscape”. He explains that certain answers to questions of morality can translate to ‘peaks’ or Valleys’ of the moral landscape, meaning these values can lead to human happiness or human suffering.
Harris doesn’t think that science can perfectly navigate this spectrum, but it does have a place in the discussion, which is a novel idea about the discourse of morality. It is not difficult to see how this argument posed by Harris is controversial. It is generally accepted that the morals and values of others should not be questioned as being right or wrong. Morality has been strictly separated from science, so to claim a connection between the two is sure to be unsettling for many, but to Harris’ surprise even the most scientific thinkers disapprove of this suggested connection.
Harris confronts criticisms of his book, The Moral Landscape, most of which he assumes have been a misunderstanding of his argument. One of the major challenges dentified, Harris calls the Value problem’. This common criticism holds that “[Harris’] reliance on the concept of “well-being” is arbitrary and philosophically indefensible” (Harris, “Response to critics”). Advocates of this criticism argue we this assumption. Harris is partial to using analogies in order to defend his argument, particularly using health as analogous to wellbeing.
He asks if it is “unscientific to value health and seek to maximize it in the context of medicine? ” and answers this rhetorical question with an assertive “nd'(Harris, “Response to critics”). A common oncern for Harris is that most critics take a larger magnifying glass to his suggested science of morality than to any other science. He claims that it is necessary for most, if not all, sciences to have some presupposition of value. The science of morality should be held to the same standards of any other science and its discourse.
We accept that science presupposes logical coherence and evidence, and those who deviate from accepting these norms and vital presuppositions are ignored from the discussion. In terms of valuing wellbeing, there may be people who question or reject his suggested basis of morality, but they should also not be taken seriously. Harris highlights what he deems one of the best reviews of The Moral Landscape by Russell Blackford, which objects to his assumption of well-being as inherently valuable, stating the presumption is unscientific and question-begging.
Blackford says “if we presuppose the well-being of conscious creatures as a fundamental value, much else may fall into place, but that initial presupposition does not come from science. It is not an empirical finding”(Harris, “Response to critics”). Harris responds to this by estating the necessity for presupposed values in the name of science. For Harris, the value of well-being which translates to the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone, is parallel to the value of evidence for scientists.
This proposition does not render science unscientific, nor does it negate the scientific value of his proposed system in The Moral Landscape. He holds “there is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so s to avoid it”, asserting the need for some basis to science that cannot be reduced any further or proven. He explains there are inevitable foundations to science, and to question these foundations as unscientific is absurd.
Connected to the Value problem’ and is another issue raised by Blackford on the concept of wellbeing, he argues that there are questions of morality which do not have determinate answers because there is room for rational disagreement about what these answers are. This claim is fixated on our accustomed belief that morality and questions of human well- eing cannot be objective; that there will always be room for disagreement on the subject.
Again, he uses the analogy of health to aid this defense, he states “the concept of wellbeing is like the concept of health, it is open to revision and discovery, and diverse among different people or groups, but there are still truths” (Harris, “Response to critics”). Harris claims there may be disagreement in the field with respect to what constitutes maximum health, but there are distinct truths to someone who is sick versus someone who is healthy.
Harris does not hold that his odel can objectively answer every question of morality and human well-being without deviation or exception, but he argues there are objective truths to be known i. e. right and wrong answers as to what values lead to human happiness or human suffering. That is to say, although there may be disagreement on the subject, this does not bind us to moral relativism or deem the entire theory unscientific. Brian that has been discussed above. Earp hesitantly allows for the improvement of human well-being as the aim of morality to be the unquestioned basis of Harris’ argument.
After agreeing to this initial premise, Earl moves on to what he deems as a more important objection to the idea Harris is presenting. He argues science is not actually being utilized in determining whether the examples Harris gives are morally or factually Wrong. Harris will say that the Taliban’s treatment of women is not conducive to the well-being of conscious creatures, Earp states “we didn’t need science to tell us that hurting women in this way is bad (or at least problematic in a number of different ways): common sense, or, better, secular moral philosophy will do Just fine” (Earp).
He attacks Harris for using the heading of science to label certain behaviour as empirically wrong. He states, “what Harris is doing is trying to hijack the prestige and “objectivity’ of the scientific enterprise to label the behaviour of certain groups as categorically WRONG” (Earp). Earp’s major concern is that Harris has not done anything new by describing the practicality of morality, he argues the seemingly radical argument posed by Harris is nothing more than a discussion of moral philosophy, not a scientific inquiry.
For Earp, “Moral philosophy plus facts it not science” telling us objective moral truths” and this is all Harris is offering (Earp). He argues that these ‘right’ and Wrong answers to questions of morality are Just “common sense”, not something scientifically to be known. It would be assumed that Harris would respond by stating these “common sense” notions are facts about the well-being of conscious creatures, which point to an empirical connection between brain states and potential outcomes.
Just because something is “common knowledge”, (which could also be argued as common western knowledge), does not deem it unscientific. Certain morals equating to accepted ideas of right and wrong ould actually be seen as evidence for the scientific connection to be made in regard to morality, that is to say, a common opinion that hurting women is bad could be connected with a certain brain state which in essence has the effect of a specific degree of well-being.
This argument posed by Earp does not seem to discredit Harris’ argument for the use of science in the realm of morality. Earp also seems harsh to attack Harris for using the rubric of science to condemn certain groups or cultures. Harris makes it clear in articulating his reasoning that his argument does not come rom the position of a cultural imperialist. Although he gives the example of the Taliban’s veiling of women, he also presents a Western depiction of women (half- naked on numerous magazine covers) as another improper extreme.
He upholds that science can find a balance between the two; he proposes his model of The Moral Landscape can find a more reasonable solution between the two that leads to a ‘peak of human well-being. Harris, contrary to Earp’s accusations, believes “the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, Just as most other facts do”. He holds that our current thinking of “who’s to say they are wrong? ” when it comes to questions of morality stem from an “attempt to pay intellectual reparations for the crimes of western colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism” (Harris, “Moral confusion”).
He holds that science will soon be able to answer questions of who is right and who is wrong. Harris himself is not putting down certain views and promoting his own, what he is pushing for is a more scientific inquiry toward universal truths that can argument has received much criticism and disapproval, his main goal is endearing. What Harris hopes his readers can take away from this idea is the necessity of human cooperation and a drive towards universal flourishing.
It is not to be denied that the argument Harris proposes can seem more like a skeletal outline, than an actual scientific expedition, but its general premises are worth considering. He begs his readers to accept the idea that questions of morality can have right and wrong answers, that morality is not fated to be subjective, and if we can accept this view, we are one step closer to a more prosperous future. Even though there are many cademic objections to his argument, it is difficult to object to his optimistic, passionate, and pragmatic reasoning behind it.
Works Cited Earp, Brian. “Sam Harris is wrong about science and morality . ” Practical Ethics . University of Oxford, 17 Nov 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.. Harris, Sam. “Moral confusion in the name of science. ” Project Reason. Project Reason, 29 Mar 2010. Web. 19 Nov 2013.. Harris, Sam. “Response to Critics of the Moral Landscape. ” Sam Harris. N. p. , 29 Jan 2011. Web. 19 Nov 2013.. Harris, Sam. “Science can answer moral questions. ” TED conference . TED. California , Longbeach. Feb 2010. Lecture.